U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced legislation to allow U.S. residents to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, answering calls for a federal fix just weeks after a judge overturned a similar state law in Maine.

Lawmakers are zeroing in on high drug prices as patients struggle to afford increasingly expensive medications, including generics.

Pingree’s bill would amend federal regulations that strictly limit the importation of prescription drugs from foreign countries for personal use. The Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act is identical to legislation recently revived in the Senate by Sen. John McCain and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins.

Under the legislation, U.S. residents with a valid prescription from a U.S. clinician could mail-order up to 90 days worth of medication, dispensed by a licensed pharmacist from an approved Canadian pharmacy. The dosage, form and potency would match that of drugs sold in the U.S. but at a significant savings to consumers, according to Pingree’s office.

The U.S. spent a record $374 billion on prescription drugs in 2014, according to one industry report. The country shells out nearly $1,000 per person each year on average, or about 40 percent more than in Canada.

In Maine, sales of pharmaceuticals at retail pharmacies totaled more than $1.5 billion in 2014.

“I think it’s crazy that people in Maine can’t buy lower cost prescription drugs from just across the border in Canada,” Pingree said in a statement. “The fact is Americans have been doing it safely for years, and I think it’s time the federal government got out of the way and let consumers take advantage of a lower price alternative.”

Pingree long has advocated for lower prescription drug costs, accompanying seniors on bus trips to Canada to buy cheaper medications when she served in the Maine Legislature.

Maine set a national precedent by passing a law in June 2013 allowing residents to purchase prescription medication by mail from overseas, becoming the first state in the nation to formally defy the federal ban. The controversial legislation unofficially sanctioned a hunt for cheaper prescription drugs that has driven Mainers across the border to Canada for years.

But in February, U.S. Chief District Judge Nancy Torresen overturned the state law, ruling Maine infringed on the federal government’s established regulatory authority. Several Maine pharmacy groups filed suit against the state over the law, arguing it jeopardized the safety of the nation’s prescription drug supply and opened the door to counterfeit and tainted medications.

The pharmaceutical lobby fiercely opposes efforts to allow drug importation for personal use, saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s oversight protects consumers from unsafe medications.

Maine’s law allowed residents to buy prescription drugs from Internet pharmacies in Canada, as well as in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Those countries, which the U.S. government deems to have as rigorous drug safety and licensing regulations, can sell prescription drugs more cheaply because their governments cap prices or negotiate discounts with drug makers.

Supporters of the law contend drugs from those countries are safe and consumers are being held hostage by high drug prices charged by American pharmacies and drug makers.

While the U.S. is forbidden from negotiating drug prices, President Barack Obama’s administration plans to seek authority to pursue discounts for high-cost drugs under Medicare.

Pingree’s bill has bipartisan support, co-sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California. The legislation, referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would exempt some drugs, including controlled and intravenously injected medications.

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Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...